Who Are the Gatekeepers?
People often assume that networking is done only with "important" people—an erroneous assumption, for sure. Accept at the outset that anyone you encounter may be important to your career. If you are waiting to meet the director of a program at a major organization, it can be particularly useful to visit with the administrative assistant who may be stationed nearby. People lower in an organization's hierarchy are generally less guarded about the information they will share. As a consequence, you as the job seeker may get a more accurate picture of the organization's culture and staff from observing and talking to them than you do from the formal interview. Plus, one of these people may decide whether your call to his boss next week will go through. His favorable comments may help generate a second interview.
For another illustration of conscientious networking, consider events held at embassies, where everyone generally vies for the attention of the ambassador. In fact, this networking opportunity can often be better leveraged by seeking out the spouse of the ambassador or another diplomat, who is almost always just as knowledgeable and has time for more than a thirty-second conversation. Again, it might be this person's favorable observation to the ambassador that produces the follow-up meeting you desire. Extrapolate this advice. It's often easier and more productive to interact with a key staffer than with a senator or CEO.
Start a Support Group
The idea of participating in a support group is an important and seldom-discussed aspect of networking. When I was conducting career roundtables at the Institute of International Education (IIE), I often urged like-minded participants with similar goals to form an informal support group. When we are working steadily at a job, we take the workplace community for granted. It is only during periods of unemployment that we realize how much we have depended on the camaraderie of colleagues and the structure of the workday to give shape to our daily lives. The solitary nature of the conventional job search can be one of the most difficult aspects of hunting for a new position.
Support groups provide a context in which job seekers can help each other search for the right positions. These job seekers are generally at similar stages in their careers. They meet on a regular basis to exchange information, critique resumes, and conduct mock interviews. They provide the prompting and encouragement so necessary to persevere with a job search. In some cases, the support groups endure long after those jobs are found. The groups serve as a confidential forum to discuss career challenges or other professional, and sometimes personal, dilemmas.
"The Bee Gees"
An example from my own experience will underscore the value of having a vibrant support group. Mine came into being without a deliberate intention to start a support group. It is a classic illustration of the fact that your efforts to help others often result in unanticipated blessings.
In 1992, when I was the director of the professional exchange program staff at IIE, some of the young women who served as program assistants on my staff came to me and said they had few role models. Could I introduce them to other women forging successful international careers? I wanted to be helpful. We decided to have a potluck supper at my home so they could meet some of my women friends and colleagues who had fashioned fascinating careers in international affairs. There was the top woman at the Boeing Company, the head of a Japanese foundation, a Finnish Foreign Service Officer serving as a cultural attaché in Washington, a Middle East expert, the wife of a US Agency for International Development (USAID) Foreign Service officer who had to remake her career every time her husband was reassigned to a new location, and several others. I asked each to share with the younger women a thumbnail sketch of her career and two lessons she learned the hard way. It was a remarkably stimulating evening; I wish I had recorded the discussion. Everyone learned a lot, and several of the younger women on my staff were mentored by my more experienced colleagues. (The Chinese parable I refer to in chapter 4 was shared as a lesson learned by my friend who headed the Mitsubishi Foundation.)
An unexpected result of the gathering was that the professionals I had assembled as resources were captivated by each other's stories. The woman who worked at Boeing invited all of us to dinner the following month, and a tradition was born. We morphed into a support group that continues to this day. We meet monthly for dinner. Everything is off the record. We have created a safe place to process major job transitions and work-related problems. We have also celebrated a wedding and milestone birthdays and helped one or more members cope with the death of a parent, divorce, illness, and surgery. We serve as sounding boards and professional references for each other. This support group, dubbed the Bee Gees by one of our members (a reference in this case not to the musical group but meaning "the Big Girls"), has become a highly valued source of stability and support for all of us.
Look for opportunities to collaborate with others in this way. When I recently conducted a workshop on NGO leadership for a group of East Asian women taking part in the International Visitor Leadership Program, a Filipina participant described the value of her support group, "The Sacred Circle." Her group observes the same "off the record" rule as the Bee Gees. A support group can be an enduring and enormously enriching part of your life.